Saturday, July 30, 2011

Disabled vets form group, Warrior Spirit, to heal through music

From CNN:

ATLANTA -- From reveille to marches to taps, music plays a vital role in the life of a soldier. One disabled Iraq veteran says he believes it may play an even more important role for wounded warriors.

Paul Delacerda spent 15 years jumping out of airplanes with the Army's vaunted 82nd Airborne Division before he blew out his kornee, ending his paratrooper career. But he wasn't done serving. He fought his way through grueling rehab and back into the Army on his third attempt.

No longer able to jump, Delacerda was serving on the ground in Iraq when his life changed suddenly and forever.

"A lot of bad stuff happened that day," he said.

Delacerda, a staff sergeant, was driving a truck on a route-clearing mission -- searching for roadside bombs -- in the dangerous Tal Afar area in 2005.

"The pucker factor in that is greater than you can imagine," he quipped.

As Delacerda and his squad crept down the road, chaos broke out all around them. A youth of about 12 threw a grenade, and the soldiers shot back, he said.

"Suddenly everything went black," Delacerda recalled. An improvised explosive device had exploded under the truck.

The blast didn't tear Delacerda's body apart, but it violently knocked his brain around inside his skull. Everyone in the squad survived, but Delacerda's military career really was over this time.

Now he suffers severe headaches, numbness in his arms and legs, nightmares, post-traumatic stress disorder and profound memory loss. Sometimes he doesn't recognize close friends. On one occasion he found himself inside a Walmart, unable to remember his own name, let alone why he was there, he said.

But one thing he has no trouble remembering is songs: "I hear it once, I can play it on drums," he said.

Out of the Army, on disability and unable to work, Delacerda found that music was one of the few things that could hold his focus, and that he felt better when he played -- once he relearned how to play. He knew he couldn't be the only one helped in this way.

Delacerda got the idea in 2009 to form a band of wounded warriors who would play for audiences of wounded warriors. By early 2010 the band Warrior Spirit was up and jamming at Veterans Affairs hospitals, rehab facilities and Warrior Transition Units.

"We can talk to these wounded soldiers and talk to them about what they're going through," Delacerda said. "We can say, 'Hey man, I've been there.' ...

"We're helping these guys heal while we heal ourselves."

Warrior Spirit has seen some personnel changes, but the current version is made up of Delacerda on drums, Levon Ingram on rhythm guitar and vocals, Robert Ferguson on vocals, King Burton on bass and Brian Hunter on saxophone. The band is searching for a lead guitarist.

Burton was wounded with the Army in Vietnam. Hunter served in the Navy during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"I don't know that it's helped as far as the problems that I have," said Ingram, 29, who suffered a head injury with the Army in Qatar in 2003 and continues to struggle with PTSD. "But it's relaxing. It's a kind of therapy.

"It helps a lot to be around other combat veterans," he added. "It's not like talking to regular people. You automatically have a bond."

Ferguson said bluntly: "We show our fellow veterans and soldiers that are just coming back and are all jacked up that it's not the end of the world."

Most of the band members' injuries are not apparent to the casual observer. You can't say that of Ferguson, 32.

Ferguson makes a point of wearing shorts for gigs and photo shoots so everyone can see his metal right leg.

"I do show it off, because with the rest of the guys in the band, their injuries are internal, but the leg brings validity to the mission," he said. "With me out there, it says, 'Well, maybe these guys are for real.' "

Ferguson lost his leg in an accident at Fort Hood, Texas, while training for the Army Reserve after a hitch in the Air Force. But he almost never has to explain that to other warriors, he said.

"Nobody asks what branch (you belonged to) or how you got hurt," he said. "All anyone cares about is 'You're one of us.' "

And there's no shame in Ferguson's game.

"My wife says I'm cocky; I just say I'm overconfident," he joked.

"Kids' reactions are hilarious," he added. " 'Mom, did you see that guy with the robot leg? I wonder if he has special powers!'"

In a way, he does. The whole band does.

"It's an inspiration," said Tina Raziano, a case manager at the Shepherd Center, a private rehabilitation facility in Atlanta that treats many service members who've suffered spinal or brain injuries as well as emotional trauma.

"A lot of these guys can't see the light at the end of the tunnel. These guys are coping with a lot of things," Raziano said. "If they can see other wounded warriors doing better, playing in front of them, doing well, it helps them see the light at the end of the tunnel."

It's good for the musicians themselves, too, she noted. Learning and playing a musical instrument helps the injured brain rebuild neural pathways and can improve cognitive abilities, she said.

The Shepherd Center's music therapy program received a huge boost last winter when a story about it by CNN affiliate WXIA-TV in Atlanta mentioned the center had just two guitars for wounded soldiers to play. Viewers responded by donating more than 20 guitars within a few days, and the National Pawnbrokers Association came through with over 100 more.

"We don't need any more guitars!" Raziano said. But the instruments have been a boon for the wounded warriors she sees.

"It diverts them from whatever psychological thing they're dealing with," she said. "They don't have to deal with all those horrible thoughts they're carrying with them from the war."

"You remember a lot of things you don't want to," Delacerda affirmed. "So having these guys (band mates) here is pretty cool. We all have issues we have to deal with."

Warrior Spirit plays its blend of country rock, blues and progressive music -- including songs written by Ingram and Ferguson -- throughout the Houston area but would like to take their show on the road. The band is seeking sponsors to help finance a reliable touring vehicle and meet other expenses.

On the schedule are concerts August 6 at the Vets & Hawks Bike Rally in Cleveland, Texas, and September 4 at the Freeport (Texas) Blues Festival. "We use our music as a healing tool," Delacerda said. "Never give up and never quit.

"The lineup may change, but the name and the mission will stay the same. We're warriors playing for warriors, and we always will be."